The day before he left, my hut companion F/o Crishna asked me to go to a local village where there was to be a 'celebration.' We were discouraged from "mixing with the natives" in this manner and the last couple of occasions were hardly likely to encourage me. Once we had entered a village and were immediately offered a chair each. The chairs were of heavy, twisted wire with pressed steel seats and looked as if they had been stolen from a nineteenth century French café. There we sat and the rest of the villagers sat around us in a circle in the dust and just gazed at us while Chrish tried desperately to find a few words in the local dialect. The next time we were greeted with equal ceremony but a smooth steel pan similar to those used in panning for gold was produced. It was filled with Palm Toddy, the universal drink throughout India and made by fermenting palm juice. I hated the stuff and the enduring smell on the breath that resulted from drinking it. A little ball of what looked like putty was produced and after much rubbing was dissolved. (At least, he used his right thumb!) This was passed round the circle of celebrants. It was, of course, opium.
The only joy it afforded me was a splitting headache the next morning. No! Declared Chrish. This one was different and I finally agreed to go. It was all middling boring. The sort of stuff one sees in the street in Bombay or any large city. Snake charmers, conjurers, jugglers etc: and some chap who kept up a constant caterwauling. His audience swayed to his movements and occasionally uttered Aahh!s of agreement, congratulation, amazement and every emotion possible. He was, it seemed, declaiming the Ramayana, the ancient Hindu epic. During all this a moppet of a girl, two or three years old had been looking at me with huge round eyes that her mother had accentuated with Kohl. (Lampblack in various solutions, well known to the ancient Egyptians and probably thousands of years before that.) She would have melted the heart of the bitterest misanthrope. A timorous hint of a smile lurked at the corners of her mouth. I smiled back and needing no other invitation she crawled up into my lap.
She just sat there gazing into my eyes until she fell asleep.
I have no idea how long but feeling completely happy I must almost have dozed my self. Suddenly I was aware of three men who were in some state of agitation about twenty feet away, one of whom I took to be the father. He nodded his head fiercely towards the girl and I signed to him to take her but she clung me. Under the urging of his two companions he suddenly rushed forwards and grabbed her with savage fear in his eyes. With a longing look over his shoulder she was gone.
I sought Chrish who was listening to the declamations. He nodded as I told him and we left at once. These were simple people and it must have seemed to the father that I was about to steal his daughter by charming her away with my 'evil eye'. I had heard, in my childhood, in tales of Gypsies charming children away from their parents by using evil charms. I was perhaps, the only person that they had seen who had other than brown eyes. The following day Chrish was gone, promising to see that I had a decent basha when I finally arrived in Kyaukpiu.
Vacating an airstrip is very like clearing a house, just when one seems to have finished there is always something more to be transported and the 'air party' were leaving in a hurry. One thing that gave us much pleasure was a cache of 'K' Rations that someone had been hiding away and had been unable to fly to Kjaukpiu so I shared these out with the remaining squadron members. These rations were the American idea of emergency rations and after the food we had been eating were most welcome. Each measured 7" X 4" X 1½", they were impregnated with wax which was supposed to provide enough heat to warm the contents. Three were allowed per day, the contents were as follows.
Breakfast. 1 Tin Ham & Egg, Water purification tablet, 1 Fruit Bar, sachets of Coffee, Milk powder, Sugar & Salt, Chewing gum and five cigarettes.
Midday. 1 Tin Pasteurised Cheese, Dextrose tablets, lemon powder, sugar, 2 Packets of 'Crackers', Chewing Gum, and five cigarettes.
Evening. 1 Tin Corned Beef, 1 'Candy Bar', Bouillon Powder, 2 Packets 'Crackers', chewing gum and five cigarettes.
The obvious common denominator being the cigarettes and the remainder were often thrown away when there was enough food.Waste and war are synonymous.
I arranged the loading of the lorries as best I could and all was going well when I was asked to check on a problem that had arisen loading a crated Merlin engine onto a lorry. I found that it had been raised on sheer legs by a chain hoist and was resting on wooden blocks with about four feet from the front of the lorry platform. When I was examining the distance it had to be moved, the supporting wooden blocks toppled and the crate which must have weighed about a ton swung forwards and crushed me against the cab. There was a horrible crack that announced three broken ribs and the crate, like a pendulum swung back. I was not there for the return swing. There was no one to blame other than myself. The problem was solved by moving the lorry under the pendant crate.
My language soared to new heights of inventiveness as I tried to strap my ribs with Elastoplast (this being the advice at the time) with the help of a medical orderly who was the sole member of the medical staff left with us. We were due to leave at 06:00 Hrs the following morning a fact that I kept to myself, giving the impression that we were to leave at 05:00 Hrs and we did, in fact, roll out at exactly 06:00! We were not likely to see anyone until we arrived in Cox's and no Japs had been reported in the area for a couple of weeks but we still had to be aware of the distant possibility of an ambush. I drove on ahead in my Jeep for about ten miles and pulled into a spot where two vehicles could pass. As the first lorry drew abreast I asked the driver to stop the convoy at a spot in the next ten or so miles so that I could take the lead again. Counting them as they passed I could hardly believe it but one was missing. Turning round the missing lorry was found a few miles from the start.
The two Indians airmen in it were grey with foreboding and admitted that they had not checked the oil. There was no spot where we could push it into a ravine and the convoy ahead was driving on but there was one hope. There was an oil drum on the lorry, rammed into one corner with heavy machinery round it so that it could not be moved without lifting gear. We had no means of opening the screw bung on the top or sides, neither had we any receptacle if we could get it out. By tapping the sides we decided that it was at least three parts full. I could fire my revolver to make a hole but we had no container. I asked the driver for his bush hat and trembling with fear he handed it to me. I fired about nine inches below the estimated and was rewarded with a jet of oil with which they filled the engine as I acted like the little Dutch boy with my thumb over the hole. They swung the engine and it turned freely so, plugging the hole in the oil drum with a whittled twig they tried the starter.
With obscene irony it burst into life at once and we set out to rejoin the others. My broken ribs had meant that, not only did each bump in the road make me grunt but a cough was extremely painful and I could not even raise my voice without discomfort. It certainly curbed any outbursts of impatience and there were many. It was just as well that none of my fellow officers were there as my plight would have been greeted with hoots of laughter and no effort would have been wasted to try and make me laugh. In retrospect, we were a pretty cynical lot.
We finally reached Cox's Bazaar with one driver wearing a knotted handkerchief (mine) on his head. We were booked in and it was then that I learned that it would be at least two weeks before sea transport could be arranged for us. I saw to it that the party was catered for and went to the Medical Officer who asked if the skin over my ribs was broken and then offered to remove the plaster and replace it and grinned at my reluctance. No. We had not done too bad a job but don't try to remove it before reporting to my M.O. when we arrived on Ramree Island.
The officer's mess was quite large and comprised entirely of Penguins (no aircrew). There was nothing for it but bed and being parted from the ground crew left a feeling of loss. I had slept little, if at all the previous night and could look forward to little in the night to come. In the same way as one perversely prods an aching tooth my unhealthy near pleasure in occasionally making the broken bones grind together made me wonder at my sanity.
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Edward Sparkes ©2000