Middle Of Nowhere

Entry by: macdonald

9th September 2016
Middle of Nowhere

Tuesday 6th September

Twenty years ago there was a paperback amongst the magazines in my dentist’s surgery. While waiting for check-ups I used to read this compendium of mysterious aircraft disappearance tales, most set just before or during the second world war. Glenn Miller, the great Big Band leader, over the English Channel on a flight to Paris. Leslie Howard, English actor, perhaps involved with the intelligence services, shot down over the Bay of Biscay. A World War Two US B-24 bomber spotted by a BP oil exploration team in Libya in 1958. It was in the Calanshio sand sea, a place so barren and inhospitable, that even the Bedouin never went there.

On Monday morning when the ‘Hour of Writes’ prompt appeared I remembered the story.

On the night of April 4th 1943, returning to base after a bombing mission in the Naples Bay area the aircraft’s direction finding equipment malfunctioned and this mishap combined with bad weather and the inexperience of the crew led to them missing the North African coast. They flew on for a few hours, probably mistaking the huge crested dunes of the ‘Sand Sea’ for ocean waves. When they were almost out of fuel, the crew bailed out, leaving the plane to crash in the desert twenty kilometres further south. Relieved to land on solid ground rather than water their first action was to pull off their buoyancy jackets (called “Mae West’s” after the inflated compartments on the front of their chest), then fire their revolvers in the air to locate each other.

But 'Hour of Writes' isn’t about recording old stories, however interesting. It’s about creative writing. A stream of consciousness piece would be good, I thought. Tell a tale in the voice of one of the crew. What his thoughts were, what conflicts arose between him and the others. The emotional and sensory experience of being lost in a desert. I remember reading Saint-Exupery’s account in ‘Wind, Sea and Stars’ of his crashing in the Sahara in the thirties. He and his companion had experienced mirages, extreme thirst, multiple astonishing hallucinations. On the point of death they had been saved by the Bedouin. It’s a compelling, visceral, eye witness account. But I can’t just do a copycat version of St Exupery. I have to make this piece my own.

Thursday 8th September

It’s becoming clear that the ‘stream of consciousness’ method is too difficult for me. I won’t bore you with my efforts so far but real people are far more complicated than invented characters in stories, however well drawn. Their quicksilver thoughts and sensory experiences are tricky to pin down, even for a writer as good as Virginia Woolf and Mrs Dalloway was only a fictional character after all. I know the when, where, why and who but I’m struggling to find a hook into my story. The primary evidence of two pencil written diaries are my best bet. And the photograph of the nine man crew standing in a line beside their plane, all facing the camera. They’d only been in Libya for a couple of weeks and were all young and inexperienced, but they look optimistic and happy.
A tall pilot at the front wearing a padded leather flying jacket catches the eye. Further down the line I pick out John. When they gathered together in the desert that night, John was missing. His parachute had failed to open. Next to him is Harold J Ripslinger, ‘Rip’ to his pals. With a name usually only found in novels I’ve chosen his story to focus on. Rip was a technical sergeant, the flight engineer. He was one of two who kept a diary of the next week.

Friday 9th

The eight survivors had less than a canteen of water between them and they shared this over the next days, a capful per day each to begin with, later a teaspoonful. They began walking Northwest, resting up during the blistering heat of the day, walking through the cold nights. Some dunes had crests over a hundred metres high so progress was slow and they quickly began to weaken. The heat of the day was torture, the intense light causing visual problems. On the fifth day, five could walk no further and one was blind. It was agreed that the three strongest, including Rip, would continue on. Their thirst was unbearable, but they still hoped to reach their base. They didn’t know that a rescue mission had been abandoned as it was assumed their plane had crashed into the ocean.

Rip was from Saginaw, Michigan, near the shore of Lake Huron. It’s a town with a long established history of producing songwriters and popular songs including "It Had to Be You" , “You’re in the army now”, "I’ll see you in my dreams". A few years after the war Stevland Hardaway Judkins was born in Saginaw, later taking the stage name Stevie Wonder, and keeping the tradition alive.

The diaries suggest the men never lost hope of rescue. They prayed together a lot. Rip’s entries were always short and factual and in his last, dated Sunday 11th April he wrote that it was Palm Sunday. In fact, Easter was very late that year and Palm Sunday wasn’t until the 18th. But perhaps the thought that it was the anniversary of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem gave him some comfort. If he knew the songs of his home town he would also have known that “Stand up, stand up for Jesus” was written in Saginaw.

Rip got furthest, eventually walking two hundred miles. Central London to Leeds is less than that and he’d only had his one-eighth share of the water in the canteen to sustain him since that first traumatic night. I imagine he just kept on trying to reach the top of the next dune, hoping that from its crest he would see something other than more sand ahead.

But whether he thought that or not, whether he had a strong faith or not, whether he continued with the prayers that the diaries refer to or not, his superhuman effort was to no avail. Even the fittest, most determined individual will die when their body runs out of water. He was still more than a hundred miles short of the base and there was no miracle rescue. His remains were found in nineteen sixty.

Friday 9th

I realise now that in starting this piece, any attempt to fashion a first person, stream of consciousness narrative was too difficult for me. If I'd succeeded in evoking such an experience it would’nt have been Rip’s voice and would have been disrespectful to the memory of a courageous individual and the other members of the “Lady Be Good” crew.

But History books rarely tell us of the individual experiences of the countless millions caught up in so many different ways in the catastrophe of war. It has been said that while one man’s death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. History book never generate the empathy that an individual persons story does, so I make no apology for using this forum to retell this one.
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