by Lad Moore
The cool mist of the waterfall surrounded me with its shroud of blue-green fog. My friend was gone—as if swallowed into a demon’s salivating mouth. For the first time, I had not been by his side when he reached for my hand. Now everything between us seemed to have been lost, without words spoken.
Jimmy Roundtree and I had two things in common when we met. Our fathers worked for the same airline and we both suffered under the same tutelage—the always-sweating Russian Prince—self proclaimed as he was.
Our fathers flew transports over The Hump, and made their fame as some of the most accomplished—if not the most daring of wartime flyers. When the strife was over, several of the best of Chenault’s Flying Tigers and Chinese National Air pilots got together and rode their fame into private enterprise. So it was with our dads.
The demand for American knowledge and technology took us to Burma, India, and Indonesia, where their skills were in demand as flight instructors. Each of the postwar countries desperately wanted to establish air power, and the fame that followed the Americans’ air exploits was highly marketable. The last of these assignments, flying for the Indonesian Angkatan Udara, was tame in comparison to the risks and dangers of the war years. Crossing the Hump had tested the upper limits of flying skill. I recall my father’s tales about stretching the airplane capabilities while dodging the ground fire—and of protecting the strategically vital Burma Road. I studied his flight logs—the “remarks” column read like an adventure book:
“Lost sister C-47—ground fire.”
“Dinjan, Assam India to Kunming China—three-ball alert over the Hump at 18,000 feet."
“Artillery fire, Tenchung—Jap air raid in progress on letdown.”
“Dog fight during rice drop—Paoshan—lost right engine over Yyi River.”
“ Mountain crossing via Pao and Teng—RAF co-pilot—Blacky went down—Search for Blacky—no wreckage.”
My father’s friend, Captain Roundtree, was always with him. They flew together at Jones Field in Texas to earn their wings, and early on, they began building their legends. It wasn’t enough to fly under the Red River Bridge in Louisiana wing tip to wing tip, but they did it upside-down. The two renegade pilots were of high interest in three states by authorities looking for those twin P-40’s.
They flew hard and celebrated late. These traits followed them to Indonesia, where they linked up with a dozen more men like them. I was only twelve years old, but I often marveled that somehow, despite long nights of marinating in Chinese beer, the pilots always made flight line muster with fresh-found energy.
It was 1951. Angkatan Udara had built a large base in the mountains at Bandung, north of Jakarta, and the Americans moved into a cluster of houses close to the airfield. As we often did, Jimmy and I flew with our dads in the C-47 cargo plane when the trip was a routine one. This particular day should have been uneventful, as we were on a short hop to a field north of Padang to ferry a load of metal runway strips. Many of the jungle airfield surfaces were nothing more than narrow ribbons of perforated steel—snapped together like today’s Lego toys.
An hour and a half out of Bandung, we encountered bad weather. It was monsoon season, so storms and high cloud tops were just flights-de-jour. This day was different. It was not one of the ordinary rain swells that quietly came and went in the afternoon. This was a rough one. The plane was lurching and buffeting, and the sky was filled with electrical displays. We turned east to head for calmer air. Suddenly, with a loud boom and jagged incision, lightening severed a sizeable piece of the left wing. The plane was shuddering and creaking, and the drone of the engines rose up and down in waves. My father shouted back at us from the cockpit to strap ourselves in tight. I grabbed one of the nylon loops that hung from the ceiling and buckled it to my lap belt, harness-style. The seats in the C-47 were single rows of bench-like metal, extending down each side of the fuselage, and freight was secured in the center. Jimmy had moved over to the port side of the plane to look out the window at the damaged wing, and I stayed on the right. We couldn’t see each other through the stacks of freight.
Jimmy shouted, “Hang on tight, kid”—almost gleefully. His words had a tone of authority yet were non-threatening—as if barking fun at someone in the next bucket on a rocking Ferris wheel. The plane was wobbling and listing hard to the left—turning in a wide spiraling circle, and headed down.
I could see the green of a rice paddy—distorted by the sheeting rain and looking odd—like liquefied grass against the portside windows. In the cabin, I saw Roundtree and my father grasping the throttle levers together, and one of them was calling out a mayday message—breaking up the sameness of the crackling radio.
I braced hard against the metal bench, pushing against its back rail. The green of the earth was all around us now, and we had lost all sky. The last seconds of the fall were long and languishing, but the impact surprised me. It was like riding a skipping rock across a pond—and surprisingly gentle. The plane made contact, and lifted up again. Then it collapsed like the stopping of an elevator too fast—leaving my stomach behind.
The airplane settled. The engine noise was gone, and I could hear the drumming of the rain against the metal fuselage. My father called out, and Jimmy and I answered simultaneously—the same two words, as if rehearsed.
In minutes we were surrounded by rice farmers—chattering like magpies. It seemed they came from nowhere, and when Roundtree opened the door, I think they were shocked to see him standing. They were all pointing at him, like he was supernatural.
Jimmy and I had much to tell the tutor the next day. His name was Peterenenko Rosilov, but we called him Mr. Rossy. It was our Americanized nickname, because we couldn’t pronounce his whole name and get anything else done. He added the title of “Prince” to it all, but Jimmy and I never acknowledged his royalty. Rossy liked to talk about himself, and how he and his extended family had been ousted from power in Russia. I think Jimmy and I learned more about the Revolution and the Czars than we did the three R’s.
School was conducted in the garage, which had been converted into a study and office. Curriculum was a mixture of lecture and writing. It was all correspondence work—with completed lessons and test papers forwarded to the Calvert School in Maryland. Test grades and certificates for accreditation were returned to us by mail. Rossy was particularly strong in teaching math and science, so we performed interesting experiments in chemistry and biology. To supplement his teachings of the arts, we took weekly field trips. He was an enlightened tour guide—explaining the important historical and cultural sites from my father’s Jeep. We visited Jakarta’s shrines and gilded temples. We toured art galleries and museums, where we learned of Indonesia’s dominance by, and recent freedom from Dutch rule. Rossy taught us much about Indonesian religion and culture, and Jimmy and I were eager learners. Our youthful energy far surpassed his, and Rossy often became tired on the field trips. Jimmy and I exchanged hushed giggles at his behavior, because it was so predictable. First he would slice his hand across his throat, the time-out signal for his breaks. Then he would find a shady spot, open his folding cricket stool with a snap, and sag into its seat like a beanbag. He always popped his handkerchief once, wiped his brow, and then emitted a loud wheeze—like the releasing of steam from a locomotive.
Jimmy and I made the best of the rest stops. We hunted four-leaf clovers or scoured the area for insects—candidates for tomorrow’s biology session. We sharpened sticks with our pocketknives to throw at the ever-present lizards—giant spiny creatures that made the trees their home.
We grew into inseparable friends. Our closeness was partly circumstance and partly convenience—being two Americans of the same age and social level. But we also had complementing talents—we quickly gelled. Jimmy was good in math and science, and I excelled in English and the arts. We helped each other through our homework and grilled one another for upcoming tests. In our free time, we were adventurers—exploring the dense rain forests that surrounded our compound. We bragged that we hunted tigers—often finding their giant paw prints on the jungle paths. We secretly knew that success was not encountering one.
Indonesian boys were avid kite-fighting enthusiasts. Jimmy and I worked long hours trying to make a perfect cutting string to compete in the aerial combats. The first thirty feet of kite string was coated with glue, mixed with shards of powder-fine glass. With a skillful crossing maneuver, the tangled lines would saw at each other until one kite was severed. In the end, we were almost always outmatched.
We often climbed onto the garage roof. It was flat, with a three-foot high facade, and was the perfect fort and observation post. We delighted in watching the natives defecate—an immodest cultural lesson we should have skipped. Behind our neighborhood, originating in the native compounds, were endless sewer troughs—a spider web of two-foot wide canals that diverted water from rivers and streams. They were the natives’ toilets. Adults, lifting their loose sarongs, and small children rarely clothed, used the troughs not three feet apart. Cleanup was like a makeshift bidet—splashing their posterior with water fanned up from the trough. We snickered as we watched, but it was a clumsy kind of fun. For two Americans raised with shiny white porcelain, the real fascination was the experiencing of cultural differences. It graphically reinforced what Rossy taught us about poverty, ignorance and the links to disease.
Jimmy and I admired how Indonesians could climb. They had no cinch belt and no climbing spikes, but their ease in scaling an eighty-foot palm might humble the best of telephone-pole linemen. They just straddled the trunk, with legs at 45-degree angles, and ascended to the top like an inchworm. With one hand free, they harvested coconuts and emptied rubber-tree bowls. Their descent was smooth and graceful—like cliff repelling.
Jimmy’s house was just next door, in what was an upper class compound, surrounded by concrete walls. It was a neighborhood of American pilots, Indonesian government officials, and high-ranking military officers. Security guards roamed the perimeter. They were there to protect us against communist sympathizers, not the humble natives. Our lifestyle and housing was princely by comparison, so we attracted crowds of the curious. The natives congregated in front of the main gate, or would peer over the walls, standing on makeshift bamboo stilts. They didn’t intrude, they just watched. If we approached them, they would retreat into the jungle—only to reemerge the minute we moved away. Often we would find raw fruit and dried fish wrapped in banana leaves on the top of the wall—like some sort of offering.
It was a life of splendor. Every home had servants, usually a cook, a gardener, and a house-man. The servants were like family, and we came to love them.
Eddie was the name we gave to our house-man. I don’t think I ever heard his real name. He was fluent in English, having been educated in the Methodist Church School as a young man. Eddie lived alone in the small apartment over our garage, and I often wondered about his life apart from our family. Even though we were good friends, he never invited me in. Sometimes In the late evenings I could hear the soft sounds of a stringed instrument—and smell the sweet odor of the peanut sate he grilled on the balcony. Other nights he stepped outside to smoke his water pipe, and I could see his figure against the moonlit sky. He kept a lone candle in his window—a quiet reassurance that lit my pathway to sleep.
In his free time on Saturdays, Eddie taught Jimmy and me the art and rules of three-man soccer. We played for hours, while my dad was at the airfield. It was a far more disciplined game than I first thought, and one that mirrored the skills of a herding dog. Eddie could do things with his feet that I couldn’t do with hands. Playing as a one-man team, he could best Jimmy and I playing as partners.
At the end of the game, Eddie always went into the house and prepared his trademark cask of limeade. It was freshly squeezed, with a wild orchid or gardenia floating on its surface. We ate natural cocoa cookies and talked about his scoring plays in our soccer game.
One such day, we were recounting the details of a hard-fought match, sitting on the steps leading up to the veranda. Jimmy had his back to the handrail. Suddenly Eddie told us to sit very still—not to move a muscle. We froze in place, noting the intense look on Eddie’s face. I scanned the area—seeing nothing out of the ordinary. As Eddie inched his way on his haunches toward Jimmy, I saw the cobra. Its fanned hood was hovering just beneath Jimmy’s arm, which he had rested on top of the handrail. Eddie moved closer, his eyes staring wide and not blinking. Suddenly, in a lightening-quick grab, he had the snake in his fist. It coiled around his arm, attempting to spit its venom into his eyes. Eddie disappeared around the side of the house, and returned a few minutes later with the carcass. Jimmy and I were still shaking from the near miss. He told us a story—maybe to calm us down.
“You saw my wide eyes and my menacing look. I never took my eyes away from those of the snake. Even as I slid closer, I was meeting his stare. I did not blink because he cannot do so.” For effect, he showed us that look again.
“My piercing eyes and my cautious approach hypnotized him. I mimicked the stare and the character of the mongoose—the archenemy of the cobra,” he said.
“My eyes caused a trance—such as can be brought forth from the melody of a flute—the snake will not strike. Usually,” he added, his broad grin revealing the crimson of betel nut-stained teeth.
It was the most incredible thing Jimmy or I had ever witnessed. When I told my father about it that night, he seemed skeptical that it could have happened that way, despite seeing the remains of the snake. I kept that snake to support my story until its blackness stank up the garage.
Jimmy and I talked about practicing that feat. We never gathered the courage—even on the harmless giant lizards that were so easy to get close to, when baited with bean curd.
The Angkatan Udara pilots and staff spent many of their Saturdays at a resort in the mountains at Lembang. There was picnicking, games, horseback riding, and some of the best barbecue I ever had. It was kabob sate—cubed ox, speared on a skewer with exotic fruits and vegetables, roasted slowly over a wood fire, and basted with Eddie’s peanut sauce. Captain Roundtree liked to say, “Best damn barbecue anyplace. Makes you want to slap your grandma.”
The pilots washed the sate and fried rice down with ample amounts of Chinese beer and wine. Even in this vacation setting, Jimmy and I were still served our daily dose of goat’s milk. I figured goat’s milk was some sort of penance for having lusted for Dolapan—a hot mixture of the juices of seven exotic fruits and a host of spices. Dolapan was a highlight of the visits to Lembang, and the recipe was the bartender’s best-kept secret. The pilots didn’t care what was in it. They just added Spanish rum and renamed it “Tiger Oil.”
Lembang was a thousand acres of rain forest and volcanic mountain terrain. Jimmy and I explored the nearby caverns to watch the hordes of bats, or prowled the thickets looking for mango trees. The highlight though, was the majestic waterfall. Its origin was almost 600 feet high, framed in a rainbow mist. It careened over a rock ledge into space—sheeting its way to earth and forming a deep blue pool at its bottom. Its name translated in English as “Windpipe of the God,” for its narrow chute at the top, and the ribbon of water that remained virtually intact as it fell.
The pool was usually filled with swimmers, spellbound by the cool shower that tamed the summer sun. I hadn’t seen Jimmy for maybe an hour, but I was not conscious of time as I drifted aimlessly in the crystal pool like a water-soaked log. Suddenly there were screams, and people were pointing up to the top of the falls. I got out of the pool and cupped my hand to my forehead to shade my eyes. It was Jimmy, at the top of the falls. I recognized the yellow shirt with the red star on it—a souvenir Eddie had given us from an Indonesian soccer team. He was standing on the rock edge of the chute. Everyone was signaling and motioning him back. He seemed oblivious to the crowd below—leaning out to watch the river release itself over the edge. Across from him there was a second ledge, the two almost touching. The river squeezed its way between them, then spewed out with foam and fury from its constraint.
Somehow I knew what he was thinking as he edged toward the opposite side. He was going to step across the ledge, one foot on each rock, with the river hurtling beneath. I spoke out loud for God’s intervening hands. Jimmy, I prayed, don’t do it.
In an instant, he disappeared. He was not on either side. All eyes turned to the rocky pool below, where several swimmers were still standing in neck-deep water. He did not surface. Roundtree and my father jumped into the pool fully clothed. They probed the waters with six other men—diving and groping for the body that was surely there.
Suddenly, onlookers began waving their arms and pointing up again. They seemed to be focused on a lower part of the waterfall. Then I saw it—the yellow and red colors, waving in and out of the waterfall thirty or forty feet from the top. The soccer shirt would appear, then disappear, as if a flashing signal. It was Jimmy—draped across a rock like it was a towel-bar. The fury of the wind and water caused his shirt to billow—to inflate and deflate like a balloon.
Several men started up the side of the cliff toward the top—carrying armloads of ropes cut from the rows of playground swings. My father and Roundtree joined them in the climb. They inched their way up the cliff just west of the waterfall. Their ascent seemed painfully slow. I closed my tear-filled eyes for long minutes—then opened them to see little progress. I prayed that Jimmy would not lose his grip after being in the force of the current so very long.
Once at the summit, the men began connecting the ropes together. They tied the rope to their waists—three our four of them acting as an anchor. I could see Roundtree at the edge, waving the rope across the rock where Jimmy lay. No hand came out to grab it. Time and time again it passed over the spot, dancing wildly as if being tossed and retrieved—like a tease.
The men brought back the rope and Roundtree tied himself on. Slowly they lowered him down. He was trying to steady himself against the back of the cliff, but the water would jerk and flip him about, like a Howdy puppet. Roundtree began to swing himself in a wide arc, side to side across the falls. When he passed Jimmy’s location, he made a poke at the shirt. It must have been a signal, because on the next pass he bought Jimmy out with him—holding him around the waist like a limp sack of feed. Slowly the men began to retrieve them.
I could hear voices behind me. “Would the rope hold?” It had been battered about the rocks time after time, and now it had the weight of two. Foot by foot they rose, often turning pirouettes in the current. They reached the top to cries of victory, and Roundtree turned around, clutching Jimmy in one arm and holding up his other hand in a familiar gesture. It was the aviator all’s-well sign—thumbs up.
They returned back down through the jungle, winding their way carefully along the steep trails. I met them halfway down. Roundtree said Jimmy was okay, except for chills and scrapes and bruises. The men wouldn’t let me close to him, waving me away. I could hear his teeth chattering over the echo of the falls. Once he looked at me. His face was blue and his eyes were hollow. I couldn’t explain it, but I felt strangely distanced from him. It was the first time we had not been hand in hand through a crisis. It was as if I had let him down—had not been there when he needed me. I felt an uncomfortable guilt, yet I knew that I had been helpless through it all.
The uneasiness was still present when he returned to school after a day of extra rest. I sensed that something was different. He looked past me when we talked, and his dialogue was abrupt and choppy. He was changed—not in appearance, but in persona. I became concerned that something in our friendship might be lost forever.
I talked to Eddie about the strangeness I sensed. As he so often liked to do in my times of fear, he told a story that he translated as “The Wings of Japoto.” It was about a young boy who cherished his imaginary friend, and how when he outgrew it, he cast the friend aside. But sometimes the boy felt a lingering guilt—a feeling of betrayal. He told his father of his discomfort.
“Japoto’s father recited what all men eventually know,” Eddie said. “Growing is a journey to the doorway of independence. For the travelers, it is a distance marched with a varied pace. Some will be first in the line—others will come along in time. The road will often seem harsh, and will be littered with the once-proud treasures of their fleeting youth. But all will pass through its door much stronger than before.”
Eddie linked that story to what happened to Jimmy, but added that his experience was an even stronger kind of maturing—one that springs from near-tragedy.
In his best Methodist-School English, he offered a promise: “Your little friend has leapfrogged you in his travels to becoming a man. Soon though, your quick steps will reunite with his, and you will walk the rest of the way together.”
I decided I could be patient. I figured Eddie was right—like about the mongoose and the cobra.
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