Exclusive extract from the novel by Frank Okolo, available for purchase: Coming soon
We sleep poorly that night. Something otherworldly about all this. Like we couldn’t believe this could be happening to us. We turn the cabin of the Electra into a makeshift bedroom. Fred uses his tools to disconnect the auxiliary fuel canisters, and we throw them out on the reef, out of reach of the swells. That gives us space to sleep. The smell of aviation fuel is overwhelming, and we leave the cockpit windows part-open to provide ventilation. Fred’s the perfect gentleman, offering me the uninflated raft and the life vest as pillow. He made himself comfortable on the utilitarian floor of the sloping cabin.
The mosquitoes are worrying. We weigh the option of opening the cockpit windows and allowing those horrid insects gain leeway into the airplane, versus keeping the door and windows locked and suffocating from avgas fumes. No brainer which one we chose!
The surf crashes against the reefs now and then, throwing fine spray on the airplane. If we get rescued today or the next, we could still salvage the airplane. Get her onboard the rescue ship somehow, even if we have to dismantle parts of it. As we did the other time in Honolulu after the ground loop during the first westward round-the-world attempt. Otherwise, I fear eventually the waves will carry the airplane into the sea. Even now, the sands shift imperceptibly with each new wave. We don’t have much time.
Fred smokes. I hate that smoke smell. Awful. Smokers think it’s manly and very becoming. They think it gives them an aura of invincibility. I don’t think it does. Of course Fred doesn’t dare light up inside the Electra cabin with all those residual fumes from the disconnected auxiliary tanks. I watch him steal outside and shuffle to the edge of the clearing and pull out his pack. It’s a delicate ceremony which must be acted out with ritualistic precision each time. He extracts the pack (Marlboros, I think) his angular rugged features bent down slightly, the famous cowlick falling into place. His delicate hands—Fred should have been a concert pianist instead of a marine navigator—shaking loose the pack, and then withdrawing the most convenient one. He sticks the cigarette into the side of his mouth, in the same fluid motion flicking his Zippo up and flaming the butt tip. He clicks off the Zippo, takes a deep drag, almost religious in intensity, inhaling and imbibing the smoke, drinking it in, feeding on it, a satisfied unholy gleam creeping into his eyes. With a flourish he removes the cig from his mouth, exhaling like a chimney at dinnertime. As the nicotine floods his system, you could see and feel the subtle transformation and at that moment he is at peace with the world and himself, and nothing else matters but his affair with that glowing cigarette. It’s like he’s almost having sex with the cigarette. Phew! I like to observe that ritual especially when he’s not aware he’s being observed. I don’t know, but I guess if he knows he’s being watched, the process will be ruined somewhat by self-consciousness. I hope he has enough tokes to last him until we’re rescued from this humid place.
Anyway, the unfurled life-raft bed provides an elevated platform and Fred and I are separated from each other by less than eighteen inches of space. I worry about bumping into him in the night. I worry that I might forget in my sleep and take him for George (my husband) and cuddle him in the throes of a bad dream. I wonder what his reaction would be? He has a loving wife and three kids, I know. Hey, why am I worrying? What if he’s the one who keeps bumping into me at night? What will be my reaction? I feel myself going red in the face with just the thought. Push him back of course, naughty girl! Protest mildly, become modest again, and second time he bumps me, firmly tap him on the arm, and change position. Yes, that sounds a reasonable thing to do. I know he’s a lush, everyone knows that. Good old Fred can hold his liquor as well as the best of them.
Christ, how did we get so lost? Baffles me. Fred’s supposed to be one of the best navigators in the world. He almost singlehandedly set up this Pacific route, this particular route we are on, for Pan American Airways. He knows this backcountry better than anybody, both as a seagoing mariner and as airplane pilot and navigator. What happened, Fred? Would the outcome have been different if the others—Paul Mantz and Blah Blah—had been on board? Would they have given me a different heading to Howland Island?
Christ, the amoebic dysentery I got in Lae, New Guinea lingers just a bit. Yeah, I know, I lied to Fred. Told him I was OK to fly. Fooled everybody. Memories of Lae. How I detest it. The relentless urgency to go to the bathroom, rushing there, squatting, (how I hated those wooden toilet contraptions!) and nothing much coming out, only a bloody mucoid evacuation. I get more sleazy stuff out from a sneeze than in those dysenteric bowel movements.
Three days to rags by the way. What am I going to do? Oh sure, got a few TPs and some liners somewhere in my bag. I was hoping I could get more by the time we arrived in Honolulu. If we don’t get rescued from this infernal island in time, I’ll be shedding into the sand or something. Gross, gross, Amy. Reminds me I also need more freckle cream when I get supplies in Honolulu. Wonder if they have Dr. Beryl’s brand there, or only in the mainland?
Why couldn’t they hear me? The Itasca I mean. They received my transmissions. I know that for certain because I could hear the static buzz each time they replied to my transmission, only I couldn’t hear anything except that static. Which reminds me. We could run the engines, one engine at least for about five or ten minutes and transmit on the radios. That’ll charge the batteries as well. If they could hear us—by now they should have more than a couple of ships out there searching for us—they can triangulate our position and come get us.
We still have our emergency rations that should last us about three days if we eat carefully and one week if we eat sparingly. Good for me, good for my figure. Never was a big eater anyway. Fred, once his cigarettes are finished, will become a ravenous eater. His body will demand more carbohydrates to compensate for the missing nicotine.
AMELIA & FRED
They eat the chocolate chip cookies and corned beef sandwiches from the aircraft emergency rations. The coffee is lukewarm in the flask after nearly a day and a half being there, and they drink this. The hot liquid soothes their throats. The temperature stands at 29 degrees Centigrade (84 degrees Fahrenheit) in the humid morning and increasing. The day isn’t going to be pleasant until it rains.
“They ought to spot us today,” Fred says. “The Itasca should be somewhere close. We’ll keep a look out with the binoculars. If we spot anything, we’ll shoot the Very pistol and hope to God someone’s looking our direction.”
Amelia says, “I’m pretty sure they heard us, yesterday. They were acknowledging our transmissions. It just wasn’t getting through. Couldn’t hear a thing.”
“Yeah.” He ponders this. “I got a feeling about those maps. Were we really where we were supposed to be?”
“What’s that mean?”
“I mean, how come we’re not near Howland? I’m shooting the stars this morning and we did fly that north to south thing yesterday. That ought to be a piece of cake if they were triangulating. I have this big uneasy feeling.’
She nods. “Me too.” Thinking.
Fred stares at her. Her freckles are pronounced, her short brown hair is tousled, her manner and clothes slovenly. Her thin bony frame reaches for the coffee flask, unwraps a sandwich foil with the mechanical long-boned arm and movements he was used to. This was the real Amelia: tomboyish, real. She wasn’t really feminine at these times, but she had an indefinable pull, one he had seen in people, especially successful actors and actresses and celebrities with lots of ambition. That was feminine enough, the draw of raw energy and ambition.
He gets up. “I’ll go see if I can see anything on the horizon,” he says. “We’ll check every thirty minutes or so. After that I’m going into the bush to take craps.” He takes the binoculars with him and wad of toilet tissue from the pack.
“Are you done with your food?” Amelia asks.
“Come on, Fred. This is no time to act gentlemanly with me. You ate two cookies.”
“And coffee. I’ll be all right.”
“For one thing, we’re on a ration here. We don’t know how long before we get rescued.”
“Shouldn’t be long,” she says. As he reaches the aircraft doorway she calls, “Fred!”
He spins around. “What?”
“Don’t go far. Snakes, you know. Caimans, all sorts of tropical reptiles. You could be bitten and die from venom.”
He laughed. “Caimans? Crocs you mean. Not likely. I don’t think crocs are saltwater reptiles. Not sure though. Yeah, got to watch out for the snakes though.”
“Don’t go far. I don’t want to be alone on this island, please. Fred, are you listening to me?
“Sure I am.”
“Why not use the airplane portable toilet.”
“Nah. That’s for you. That way it gets to last some. I’ll do my business in the woods.” He runs a hand through his hair, straightening out the cowlick. It falls back into place right after his hand goes through it. “I’ll look after myself, don’t worry.”
She watches him leave, her eyes not squinting as usual, but round and watchful.
He walks inside the bushes, negotiating the eight or nine crabs shuffling across the sand. This island is definitely uninhabited, he thinks. He’s never seen such huge land crabs before. A human population would have decimated them. He searches for a trowel-like piece of rock or oyster shell big enough. He settles for a flat wide bark from a tree, which he tears off. He locates a suitable place not far from the woods edge, scouts for snakes. None found. He digs a reasonable hole, the way he’d been taught in sea school, then turning so he could see the Electra near the water’s edge, pulls down his trousers and does his quick messy business. He wipes his ass with the tissue and gets some on his fingers. He wipes those off on the hard sandy loam beneath him, hitches his trousers and makes to wash his hands at the water’s edge, knowing Amelia is watching, before taking up the binoculars.
He searches the horizon. These are Zeiss issue, good optics, seasoned mariners swore by them. He swivels his neck back and forth slowly, taking in the horizon quadrant by quadrant. He completes a full 360 degrees, even panning the tree line behind him in hope of sighting smoke or the plume of a Very pistol. Absolutely nothing. The silence is eerie, absolute. On the northeastern edge he could see the wrecked hull of a ship. A cargo ship, more like. Probably on its way to Australia when it beached. No chance in hell people were still aboard it, judging from the forlorn superannuated look of the wreck. Schools of fish would be abundant, forming an artificial reef inside and around the resting place of the ship beneath the ocean. Despite the rhythmic slap of the waves, he has never before felt this deep-seated awe of the vast open ocean before and behind them. The island they are on is literarily a pin drop on the unfathomable width of the Pacific Ocean, lost, irrelevant, consumed and yet insignificant in the cycle of the rolling waves. He has never felt so alone. And frightened. He mustn’t let that show. Fear was contagious, he knew, Amelia would catch its whiff in an instant, sealing their doom. Those without hope are doomed. Surely they would be found soon. He hoped so. But something… something. Were the maps wrong? How in hell had they wandered so far off course? If what he saw on the map and if his sun sighting this morning were correct, they were more than three hundred miles off course. Three hundred! In 1937? In this day and age of sextants and voice ranges, all those things they did without during the barnstorming days of the Roaring Twenties.
When he returns Amelia is in the cockpit going through her ‘Before Engine Start’ checklist. She turns when he enters the cabin. “See anything?”
He shakes his head. “We’re the only ones on this planet, it seems.”
Her hands move in the cockpit. The master switch comes on; the gyros whirr and stir from their slumber, the harsh whine of the radios crackling to life. She primes the engine fuel pump.
“The right wing tank has more fuel than the left,” she says. “I’ll start number two to charge the battery and then I’ll send out more distress calls.”
“Good idea,” he says.
“Brakes are set,” she murmurs to herself. She really doesn’t need them; the main wheels are stuck solid in the reef sand. “Magnetos on, fuel primed.” She leans out the open cockpit window on her side and shouts, “Clear right!”
As though it mattered! But habits are habit.
She hits the starter. The huge Pratt & Whitney Wasp engine gasps, splutters, coughs, kicks, and the Hamilton Standard two-blade props spin and catch. Soon it’s a blur as the rpm increases. The exhaust port belches white and black smoke that disappears as the engine clears. She watches the gauges and as soon as the fire is self-sustaining, she brings the prop out of feather and the blurry whir turns into a fine deep-throated song. She notes the ammeter has gone from a negative charge to positive. The aircraft battery is being charged.
It’s the strangest thing, starting one engine in the middle of the central Pacific Ocean, on a sand bar with no one to hear you. No lineman, no airplane marshaller, no control tower, no windsock to get wind bearings, nothing. Unreal. If a tree falls in a forest unobserved, is the noise heard? She and Fred are the only witnesses in this world that this airplane is definitely going nowhere, is stuck in coral sand, and they are running an engine with the last of their fuel to try and raise help.
She keyed the mike. “This is K.H.A.Q.Q. calling Itasca. K.H.A.Q.Q. calling Itasca. Mayday, Mayday! Call me on 3015 cycles. Repeat, listening out3015 cycles. Over.”
She is aware of Fred leaning into the cockpit, both of them straining for the reply. It’s noisy in the cockpit, and she closes the window to be able to hear well. She repeats the message. Again, no reply.
She tries six more times, then shut off the radio, pulls the prop levers into feather, and cuts the fuel mixture. The Wasp coughs once, twice, and trolls into silence. The sudden quiet is deafening.
Nothing to be said.
“How much fuel do we have left in the tanks?” Fred asks.
“About twenty gallons or less. Gauges are reading empty,” says Amelia. “I’ll dipstick it and see exactly how much are in the tanks.”
“They have to be nearby,” Fred says. “I figure we’re within a seventy mile radius of some boat or ship. Beats me why in hell they aren’t hitting on us. Beats me.”
“Me too.” She has a sudden thought. “Let me look at those maps.”
Fred hands them over and she pores over them while outside the Wasp makes ticking noises of post- shutdown. “Fred, are these maps current?”
“Far as I know. They’re from the National Oceanographic. We vouch for them.”
“Yes. But I see many uncharted areas here.”
He peers at it, silent.
End of extract