Front Porch Review
The big C-130 Hercules came thundering down through the clouds, its broad, silver wings glistening in the African sunlight. The four huge Allison engines roared as the plane found its altitude, pulled up and leveled. Ahead, through the narrow cockpit window, Jake Henley could see the mountain pass, a distinct V-shaped notch in the ridge.
“Is that it?” he shouted.
Kamifu, his Tanzanian aide, leaned in over his shoulder and looked. “Yes, Mr. Jake. That is it.”
“How far from there?”
“Minutes, Kamifu. How many minutes?”
“Not many minutes, Mr. Jake.”
Jake looked back at Kamifu’s black face but could only see white eyes flashing and scraggly white chin hairs. “About how many?”
“About ten. You stay low. Must get very low, or they shoot us out of the sky. Boom! Wafu — we dead.”
“Well, we don’t want that.”
They had left Nairobi four hours earlier, at the crack of dawn, and now the sun was high and bright and shone sharply off the silvery nose of the plane. The glare caused Jake to squint, even from behind the shield of his dark sunglasses. Kamifu, however, seemed unaffected by the bright rays. A lifetime beneath the savannah’s hot sun had hardened his pupils and produced a natural ultraviolet filter. Jake glanced out the side window and could see the African landscape streaming by. There were groves of acacia trees and a river and some small lakes. And now the land was beginning to rise sharply beneath them, sloping up toward the mountain pass ahead.
“You stay low,” Kamifu said again.
“Okay Kamifu, we stay low.” Jack pushed the steering yoke forward, and the plane dipped. Kamifu lurched forward, clinging to the back of Jake’s seat to keep his balance. The engines roared like lions, and the plane lifted slightly, rising with the earth. The altimeter faithfully held at 150 feet.
“That was good, Mr. Jake,” Kamifu said, showing his broad, white-toothed smile.
“It wasn’t intentional, Kamifu.”
“I go now. Get ready for drop.”
“How will I know? How will I know where to find the mark?”
“You will know, Mr. Jake. There will be a space, wide as the savannah itself. No problem. Trust me.”
“I get ready, okay?”
“Yeah, you do that.”
Kamifu’s tall shadow disappeared into the darkness of the cargo hull while Jake nervously locked both hands onto the yoke and fixed his hazel eyes on the cockpit window. He felt flush, hot even. He pulled open the side window, let the air rush in and blow his sandy-brown hair into wild little swirls. His heart pounded, pumping like a speedy metridome. He glanced up at a photograph of a young woman paper-clipped to a wire above the cockpit window. She stood next to an acacia tree with two Maasai children by her side. Ahead was blue sky as he approached the top of the ridge. The vintage plane rattled about him; the engines hummed smoothly on either side. With slow, skillful movements, he pointed the nose up through the V-shaped gap in the ridge.
Back in the cargo hull, Kamifu cranked the bomb-bay door open. His lean, wiry frame leaned into it, pulling down hard on the crank-lever. The rear doors slowly widened, and as they did, the sound of wind rushing into the hull increased in volume and ferocity, as did the sound of the engines. He was dressed in shorts and a green army tunic, and the wind coming in the bay door whipped the cloth material against his thighs and the sleeves on his arms. With one last long crank he locked the bomb-bay door lever in place. Then he staggered to the edge of the opened ramp and looked down.
The good African earth rushed by — rugged terrain speckled with green acacia trees and the gnarled tops of baobab, rising to boulder-strewn slopes and rocky cliffs. In the plane, stacked on freight pallets, were the cargo bins, queued-up on huge roller coaster rails that led out the rear ramp. He walked back to the first bin and patted its plywood side. “You go down to my people, now,” he said. Then in Swahili, “Tufanye sote bidii. With hearts strong and true. You make them well.” His eyes were laughing, and a soft smile came to his face. One hand on the drop lever, Kamifu stood and waited. Through the gaping rear doors, he could see the mountainside rapidly ascending.
On the ground, just beyond the notch in the mountains, dug in trenches beneath large camouflaged netting, were several members of the Hutu militia, Interhamwe. All former regulars of the Rwandese Army, they fought now against the new government and the Forces Armees Rwandaises. They were the ones which had taken part in the great genocide, the bloodbath of Africans killing Africans which had split the country in civil war. On their hands was the blood of thousands of Tutsies, hacked with machetes or shot with guns, the same guns they held now against a lone steel beast coming rapidly their way.
High on a mound of earth stood their young Lieutenant, Kayomba. He, as the others, still wore the war-torn uniforms from the old regime. He held a pair of binoculars in one hand and pointed skyward with a handgun in the other. “Sikisa! Hapo!” he shouted in Swahili. “Over there!”
They could hear the plane’s engines coming, and, with his direction, the soldiers turned, focused and pointed their rifles just above the southern outcropping of rocks. They had one vintage Browning fifty-caliber machinegun, which swiveled on its tripod in the direction of the approaching sound.
“Ngojea angu amrisha!” Lieutenant Kayomba yelled. “Wait for my command!” His large black hand held his handgun high to the southeast sky.
The droning of the turboprop engines drew louder and out of nowhere, flying barely above the shallow of the ridge, the sleek, silvery belly of the huge C-130 emerged bright and large.
“Sasa!” Lieutenant Kayomba screamed. “Now!” And simultaneously he pulled the trigger on his handgun, repeatedly, following the belly of the plane as it flashed across the blue Rwandan sky. Likewise, the men with the rifles and the machine gunner fired, all in unison, tracking the huge plane. The sound of their guns spattered and popped like a long string of Chinese firecrackers.
But the plane came in so low and fast it was gone before they hit it. Mostly they were firing at the tail as it trailed away. Lieutenant Kayomba dropped an empty clip, slapped in another, and fired a few more rounds at the distancing plane. Then he lowered his handgun and watched as it sped away, its wings weaving back and forth as it dropped low into the valley beyond.
“Chafu taka ngurauwe!” he hollered. “Filthy pigs!” Then he looked down at the young soldier behind the machinegun. Incompetence leads to defeat, he thought. Cursing himself, he stomped to the soldier and whacked him with an open hand on the back of his head.
Inside the plane, the rapid pinging of hundreds of rounds whacking through the metal frame and ricocheting from side to side had caused Jake to duck down impulsively. He listened until the pings slowly diminished. When they had completely ceased, he yelled back into the cargo bay, “Kamifu! We made it!”
Ahead the savannah opened like a huge curtain, filling the 180° view of the cockpit. Below him, approaching rapidly and moving on the ground like a giant wave, rippling as if made of velvet, was a vast, colorful sea of humanity. Thousands of refugees had gathered there in this valley between the mountains. They had made the week-long journey out of Rwanda to the northern border of Tanzania to evade genocide and starvation.
Looks like a million ants, Jake thought. It is a million ants! And there, in the center of it all, as Kamifu promised, was a long wide lane, cleared by the ground crew for the drop. Kamifu was right. You have to get low, real low, or the bins would crush the crowd.
Jake pushed forward on the yoke, then pulled up and leveled at an altitude of barely 500 feet. As the plane thundered over the refugees, he saw the people clearly and their garments of red and yellows and blues. There, in the middle, a tall, thin African woman stood above the crowd, her arms outstretched skyward, holding a baby toward the plane. As he flew over, he turned his head and watched her pivot the baby in his direction. He looked forward. The drop zone was before him.
Jake took hold of the intercom transceiver and called to Kamifu. “Get ready buddy! We’re coming up on it. I’ll give you the mark.”
Slowly, steadily, holding the transceiver in his right hand, he leveled the wings and lined the nose up in the center of the long clearing. The ground, rushing by in a blurry mix of colorful garments, suddenly parted as though by the will of Moses. Then there was nothing but barren earth with the shadow of the plane skirting over it.
“NOW!” he shouted into the transceiver. “Now, Kamifu! Let ’em go!”
Jake concentrated, holding the plane as steady as he could, trying to give Kamifu as clean and clear a lane as possible. He anticipated the cargo-bumping a pilot would normally feel when dropping cargo aft, but it never came. He tried to look back from the side window, but the swell of the plane’s wide body obstructed his view. He placed the transceiver back into its bracket, widened the window, removed his sunglasses, and stuck his head all the way out, so far that the wind flattened the hair on the back of his head. Now, the angle providing sufficient vision to the rear of the plane, he could see the tail of the plane and the long clearing trailing aft, but no cargo bins fell to the ground.
What the hell? He grabbed the microphone and repeated the command; “Now, Kamifu! NOW!” He stuck his head back out the window, looking and waiting, the transceiver still in his hand, but he saw nothing. In front of him the clearing was coming to an end, beyond which was an outcropping of rocks, which rose abruptly from the savannah.
“Kamifu,” he shouted into the transceiver. “Can you hear me?” He looked at the transceiver and thumped it against the console. Then, speaking into it again, he yelled, “Can you hear me?”
The rise in the earth was coming up quickly. He shouted into the microphone: “Hold up, Kamifu! I’ll come back around.” He slapped the transceiver back into its bracket.
The massive river of refugees below suddenly swallowed up the clearing. He pulled back on the yoke. As the engines roared, and the nose of the cargo-heavy plane rose steeply above the outcropping of rocks, he saw a flash of light. Then a second flash. Jake knew he had been fired upon. Coming directly at him from the outcropping of rocks at a tremendous speed were two fireballs, each trailing long curly tails of smoke.
“Holy shit!” He cranked the yoke hard left. The engines screamed. The frame chattered and wreaked, and both missiles skimmed past skyward on his starboard side and headed toward the sun. Jake trembled., and sweat poured down his face and neck. His mouth was dry and parched. “I should have taken that job flying for UPS,” he mumbled to himself.
Now swinging wide westward, he was back on the transceiver. “Kamifu! Come in, damn it!” Again, there was no response. Jake stared at the transceiver and then tossed it down. He had gained enough altitude now to clear the rugged mountains to the west. He leveled the wings, headed straight for Zaire, and put on the autopilot. Then he scrambled aft down the cluttered connecting corridor, climbing over cables and boxes.
The cargo hull was howling with wind. Immediately he could see that the floor was riddled with tiny holes for bright pencil-thin columns of light shone up through them. Across the bay Kamifu lay flat near the drop lever, blood streaming from his long body and sprayed about the floor and walls, whipped by the wind.
Jake staggered forward, bracing himself against the hull. He dropped to Kamifu’s side and shook him. Kamifu’s cotton shirt flapped wildly in the updraft, but he did not move. “Hold on!” Jake cried. But it was useless, he knew. He was gone.
Jake, back in the pilot seat, was ready to kill someone, or something. He screamed and slammed his palm against the steering wheel. “Those dirty bastards! Those dirty, dirty bastards!”
The plane had gone far beyond the pilgrimage now. Rushing below was only the dry African earth and the wide shadow of the plane’s body and wings. He released the autopilot and turned the yoke so that the plane made a long, arching curve southwest.
He was alone now, without the aid of his trusty friend. And there was no one on the ground who could help him. He considered abandoning the mission and heading back to Nairobi. He was not a soldier. He was only a volunteer in a faraway land. He looked at the photograph, the female stared back at him. “Okay, Jake Henley,” he muttered. “You’re going to do this.”
He continued in his long, arching curve, eventually going from southwest to due south. In the time it took to turn the plane around, he had traveled a considerable distance from the large savannah where the refugees had gathered, and from the mountain-pass where Lieutenant Kayomba and his men waited with their guns. It gave him time to consider how best to do this. He could not approach from the east or west, he knew, for the clearing ran north and south, narrowly between the waves of refugees. He could not make the drop in the foothills east or west, because it might fall into the hands of the Interhamwe, the enemy, or it could cause a stampede of some kind whereby, without the guidance of the ground crew, hundreds could be crushed and killed. Coming from the north he would have to contend with the steep out-cropping of rocks and the surface-to-air missiles again, and there’d be miles of open-air exposure before and after arriving at the drop-zone, giving the assailants plenty of time to see him coming and take aim. No, from the south was the only way, over Lieutenant Kayomba and his band of soldiers with small arms fire. They would never expect him, Jake thought. No one would be so crazy to fly over that again. And flying low as he did before, he knew their firing window would be short and quick and more focused on the tail, not at the engines.
He looked at the fuel gauge. It was down to a quarter. “Besides, there’s not enough fuel to go all the way back north and get back to Nairobi,” he said to himself. He straightened the plane in the direction of the range of brown mountains from which he had flown in over from Kenyatta Airport, and when he was far enough south, beyond earshot of the soldiers, he turned the plane back north again. In his mind he thought of Kamifu; his smiling, white-toothed face, and then laying dead in the cargo hull the next. He saw the tall thin African woman on the ground, holding her baby high up toward the plane. And he looked at the photograph of the young woman again, as though to give him strength.
Lieutenant Kayomba stood as before. He had watched the plane, a sliver speck on the horizon, narrowly evade the surface-to-air missiles. And he had followed it west until it disappeared beyond the skyline of mountains. At first, he thought it was heading to Kinshasa, the capital of Congo, or perhaps on a long, looping route back north and east to Nairobi over the Great Rift Valley and Lake Victoria. So, he was surprised to hear the distant droning of the engines coming just west of them. Binoculars to his face, he scanned the horizon and saw the plane several kilometers off, popping in and out of view beyond the mountains. He watched it head further south until it was finally gone behind the ridge. Then he raised his hand for his soldiers to see him, pointed in the direction of the plane and shouted in Swahili; “Andaliwa! Be ready!”
He scurried down to the soldier behind the machinegun, shoved him aside and took hold of the trigger-grips. The sound of the engines drew steadily closer. They could hear the plane approaching from the south, but could not see it. All stood poised and ready, this time their weapons pointed in the direction where they knew it would come from.
Jake was afraid but remembered Kamifu’s words: “Keep it low, keep very low.” He reached up and touched the photo of the young woman, and he said, “Be with me now, baby.”
The mountain pass approached at a phenomenal pace, something akin to the streaking terrain in the viewfinder of a Star Wars video game. He had decided not to make it easy for them. He’d come in from a slightly different angle, and drop even lower. He throttled up as the mountain walls approached on either side. The aged, metal frame rattled and creaked from the tremendous torque of the lift. The plane followed the contour of the earth as would a skillful bird. Coming up in the cockpit windows was the low V-notch in the mountains. Then, holding the yoke straight out before him, both hands fisted, he let out a loud, involuntary cry.
The huge silver bottom of the plane flashed white over Lieutenant Kayomba and his men. As soon as it appeared they let loose a volley of hundreds of rounds, pounding the steel belly and fuselage and the wing undercarriage. Their guns followed the plane the best they could, but it was nearly impossible as they had to swing their rifles from south to north in one fast, fluid motion.
From the plane’s cockpit, the fire spitting from the soldier’s gun barrels looked like the flashing bulbs of a hundred press cameras. Jake cringed at the sound of all the bullets ripping through the metal. It was all about him now. The pinging seemed to sustain even longer than before. But, like before, it was concentrated toward the tail-end of the ship. One of the right engines sputtered, tossed some smoke, but kept going. Thirty seconds, and then a minute passed and the pinging subsided. One last ping against the rear fuselage and he heard no more. Jake pushed the yoke further forward and followed down the contour of the earth, sometimes only a matter of feet above pinnacles of rocks and craggy outcrops. Then, with the vast savannah spreading out before him, he leveled the plane and got some air between him and the earth.
Coming up rapidly was the huge exodus of refugees, and he could see the long, beautiful clearing opened by the ground crew. He dropped in low above them, holding steady, and lined up the wings. He watched the altimeter until it was perfectly level. Then he clicked on the autopilot and leaped to the rear.
The plane bounced turbulently as Jake scrambled through the connecting corridor. He stepped carefully over Kamifu’s body, glancing down briefly at his lifeless face, to the edge of the bomb bay where the drop lever was located. The wind rushing up from the opening took his hair straight back. Beneath him, flashing by in the gapping cargo bay doors, he could see the thousands of colorful shawls and tunics, and the thousands of heads squeezed together. Then, just as suddenly, came ground, only ground, and no people.
He grabbed the drop lever and yanked down on it. The cargo bins began to come down the rails. The first one dropped off the rear ramp, snapped taught its static line and pulled free from it. The parachute ballooned open and the crate drifted down toward the earth. “Yeah!” Jake blurted.
Then came the next food bin, and the next, each staggered on their freight pallets, coming down the rollers, dropping out the rear doors, and snapping free of their static line. Jake watched for a minute as each beautiful white parachute blossomed open and drifted downward, one after another. Then he scurried back to the cockpit, climbed into the pilot seat and clicked off the auto pilot. The view was a relief. The outcropping of rocks from which the missiles had been fired before was still a distance away. He had timed it well. No need to rush, he told himself. Finish the drop. Then pull off east.
He glanced back, out the side window. Beneath the tail of the plane the big, beautiful white parachutes continued blossoming and drifting downward and hitting the ground. The last parachute opened; its cargo crate drifted quickly to the ground. Jake watched, giving it time, seeing no more crates coming out, watching the last one hit the ground, seeing it plow up a cloud of dust, seeing that cloud rise and cover the activity on the ground.
He cranked the throttle and turned the yoke hard right and back. The engines lifted the huge C-130 swiftly. Then the plane flattened into a course due east. Jake swung his head around and looked back at the outcropping of rocks. He saw nothing coming from it. “YES! YES!” he shouted, pounding his fist on the control panel.
He could feel his body shaking all over, the adrenalin was still pumping through his veins. He held the yoke straight, throttle all the way down, wanting to get as far away from the rocks as he could, as quickly as he could. When he reached a distance of several kilometers, he began to think about it. It seemed the drop had gone well, but he was not sure. He wanted to see how it had gone. He wanted to be sure he had done it right. He wanted to see the fruits of his labor. He began turning the plane in a big half-circle, back toward the drop site. He could do this safely, he thought. He could come in perpendicular, from east to west, in a way he knew he would be at a safe distance from gunfire. In a matter of minutes, the plane had turned completely. Slowly unrolling before him was the massive congregation of refugees—legions of them, now seemingly coming together as one.
Jake dropped the plane down low. Then even lower, coming in and skimming over the top of the crowd. He looked out his side window, the warm air rushing in against his young face. He could see the people in their colorful garments swarming the cargo bins. He could see the wooden cargo crates, broken open, and pails of golden grain and corn being shoveled out. He could see the project workers, one standing atop an opened crate beneath a white safari hat, a thousand hands reaching up to him. He could see all the people cramming together, all the colors becoming one. And there, coming up rapidly off the port side of the plane, was the African woman, her baby held high in her outstretched arms, triumphantly toward the plane.
Frank Scozzari, a multiple Pushcart Prize nominee, lives in Nipomo, a small town on the California central coast. He is a graduate of Cal Poly State University, San Luis Obispo, moonlights as a private investigator, and is a member of the Screen Actors Guild. An avid traveler, he is happiest off the beaten path and once climbed Mt. Kilimanjaro, the highest point in Africa. His award-winning short stories have appeared in numerous literary magazines including The Worcester Review, War Literature & the Arts, The Tampa Review, Pacific Review, Eleven Eleven, The Emerson Review, South Dakota Review, Hawaii Pacific Review, Minetta Review, Reed Magazine, Berkeley Fiction Review, Ellipsis Magazine, The Nassau Review, and The MacGuffin, and have been featured in literary theater.