Two Near Brushes with Death
(Including my brief career as a thief)
Our convoy of about a dozen troop ships was strung out in a zigzag line with spaces between each pair of ships of about five or six miles. We had encountered several problems: we had intercepted and sunk one German U-Boat; lost one helicopter (and crew) that misjudged the deck level of the ship, etc.
We landed in Oran and all the troops were bivouacked in tents for an overnight stay before taking the train the next day. There was a bombing raid by the Luftwaffe that night, and we all ran out into the fields surrounding the camp. I spent my first night in North Africa in a ditch between two grape arbors. The German planes had a very distinctive throbbing sound - there was no mistaking them. We watched the ack-ack tracer bullets. I saw at least one direct hit and explosion, and then I heard from just beyond the grape arbor where I was lying, the most foul-mouthed cursing. Having been in the army for half a year that was nothing new, but I recognized the voice as that of a friend of mine whom I had met at Vint Hill. "John, is that you?"
It was John Beck from Findlay, Ohio, who had a very odd, gruff-sounding, distinctive voice.
"Are you all right?"
"Yeah, I'm all right."
"What's the matter, then?"
"Those god dammed Germans interrupted my prayers!"
The next day, we were all herded into small railway boxcars called "Forty or Eights" - meaning they were built to accommodate forty men or eight horses. We pulled out of the camp and began the daylong trip across the open country toward Algiers. It was a warm, beautiful day. Both side doors were slid open so we could have air and see the pretty country roll by.
I looked out, and there was a ladder right by the open door, which led to the roof. So I left the smelly interior and climbed the ladder and sat on the roof to enjoy the breeze as we moved along at breakneck speed of about 30 miles an hour. As I sat there just watching the scenery, suddenly I heard "pffffft" and I realized that something had just gone past my right ear. Then again, "pffffft!"
"My God, I'm being shot at!"
I looked out into a field we were passing and could see a puff of gray smoke coming from behind what looked like a tiny haystack about 3 feet high. Like a shot (oops! A bad simile, considering the situation), I went over the other side of the car and clung to the ladder beside the open door and held on until we had traveled about a thousand feet. Then I swung myself inside. Some of the men were asleep on the floor, a couple of them were playing cards, one was writing a letter. No one had noticed or heard the shots over the sound of the train. I sat there trembling for a long time.
When we arrived at Algiers the next day, all the men assigned to the 849th Signal Intelligence Service were separated out, loaded into the back of Army trucks, and driven south out of Algiers about 30 miles to Hammam Melouane, which was a hot mineral water spa (the water came right out of the mountain and was piped into the bath house where there were individual bath rooms - each with a HUGE tub - and not much else), which had been a vacation spot for French movie stars and high government officials. It was here that I trained our cryptographic teams, had classes for officers who were to be in charge of Message Centers, sailed my canoe, flew my airplane, and walked each evening with Alice and her sister Raymonde Camps.
Although I usually went to Algiers to attend the opera, one day on my day off I decided that I would not ride in the truck to town but would spend the afternoon climbing up the side of the small mountain across the stream from our "camp." It was a very rocky terrain, but a gentle slope up. This is the same stream where, a little farther up, I had launched my canoe - homemade out of swiped US Army mail bags, vegetable and fruit boxes, hand sewn and painted to be waterproof - which it was - with paint purchased at the Bon Marche in Algiers. I made a paddle from a broomstick and the top of a number 10 can from the kitchen. I used it only once, pulled it up on the rocks, and the next day it was gone. Three days later an Arab walked down our road wearing the most beautiful blue wrap-around garment you have ever seen. So much for that.
Anyway, about a third of the way up the mountain (the same mountain we had shot at during Major English's famous "alert") I came across a level place, and there was a small altar about three feet high made of piled up stones. On top of the altar was a whole group of green lamps - looking like candleholders with a cup at the top to hold oil and one side of the cup shaped like a pitcher to support a wick. Each was about six inches high and was glazed with a beautiful olive green. I thought, "souvenir" and put two of them inside my jacket.
Just then I heard from far above me, "IMSHEEEEE!"
I did not pause to respond, sensing that I was not entirely welcome. I turned and fled down the side of the mountain with rocks hitting the ground all around me and at my feet. "IMSHEEEEE!"
I made it to the bottom in about a hundredth of the time it had taken me to go up. I don't know how many unfriendly fellows were behind me. I got down to the edge of the rapidly rolling stream and leaped into the water and ran to the other side - it was no more than a foot and a half deep there at any point, which I knew having explored it before. The rocks ceased coming, but I kept going until I got to the place where we usually ate al fresco, ducked behind the kitchen, and circuitously got back to my cubicle. I had a lamp for Lucy Chase and one for my mother in Arkansas. I do not know what happened to Mom's after her death, but I am looking at the one I got for my girl as I write this!
© Jim Bob Stephenson 2008
Composed 4 November 2008; Transcribed by Lucky
Cast of Characters